Most novelists will tell you it’s okay—even encouraged—to mine your darkest thoughts and bring them to light in your fiction. But what about the dark thoughts that involve the people you love most? And is it better or worse if you do it with humor?

I’m not particularly proud of the moment that sparked the idea for my eighth novel, Take My Husband. It was in the thick of the pandemic, and I was living under the same roof with my beloved and three 20-something children. For someone with an almost pathological need for alone time, it was rough going.

But my messy little office with its desktop computer, two printers, overloaded bookshelves, piles of pages, and compact coffee pot was my haven. To keep from being disturbed while writing, I put a polite sign on the door that read “Please Knock.” When that didn’t work, I added a second sign—this one in bold purple—that simply read “Knock.” When that proved inadequate, I got testy enough to make a third sign reading “Knock Means Knock.”

It worked. Sort of. I was toiling away on a new project—deep in the zone of intense concentration as I tried to untangle a beast of a paragraph—when my husband knocked once, swung the door open, and announced something about a new shipment of toilet paper at Stop & Shop.

That was the moment it happened. My muse barged into the room right behind my husband—without knocking or even clearing its throat—to deliver the idea to write a book about a happily married woman who wants to throttle the man to whom she had pledged her undying love.

No, I thought. Absolutely not. It’s too... mean. But it’s a comedy, insisted my muse. Still, I resisted, as it felt dangerously close to ridicule, which has never amused me, either as giver or receiver. In fact, throughout my long marriage to a very funny man, our teasing has always been of the gentlest sort.

Take, for example, the quip he made years ago when our youngest was reading aloud from one of those corny joke books they publish for children.

“What do you call a woman with a big head?” she had asked.

“Honey,” my husband responded.

I’m still laughing at this joke. And yes, I understand you had to be there. If you were, you’d know I have an unusually enormous head, while my high-IQ husband has a child-size skull. It’s been a kind of running joke between us over the decades of our marriage. The fat-headed girl meets the pin-headed boy, they fall in love, marry, and have three normal-headed children who like bad puns.

Now, I know deconstructing a joke is a comedy crime even more egregious than withholding a punch line, so I’ll just say this: my husband could have responded “Ellen” and it would have been funny. His term of endearment was a better choice, though, thanks to the built-in domesticity. Also—and this is important—it wrapped the tease in tenderness. My husband, bless his heart, would never want to hurt my feelings.

I would never want to hurt his, either. So this book idea was not for me. Still, my muse nagged, and I knew why. There was truth in it, and as a novelist, it was my job to hold that truth up to the light.

At last, I relented, tackling the emotional reality the way I always do—by surrounding it in fictional details. My husband is slim; I made the character heavy. My darling is nearly Patrick Stewart bald; I gave the character a full head of Will Ferrell curls. [

My muse barged into the room right behind my husband—without knocking or even clearing its throat.

As I pushed deeper into the writing, I realized I had to change more than his appearance. After all, the wife in the story is the main character, and I couldn’t justify her dark thoughts if the husband was as gentle and loving as my dear man. So I made him more objectionable than simply a guy who doesn’t respect doorway boundaries. I made him needier, greedier, sloppier. Instead of being a man who keeps his wife on an eye-level pedestal of love and respect, he’s jealous, clingy, and untrusting.

As for the wife, she might not share that much in common with me except for that single questionable urge. Ultimately, I’m glad I listened to my muse and had the gumption to find the humor and light in a dark moment—especially since my husband is on board. And that brings up my favorite riddle of all: what do you call a man who loves and supports a woman with a crazed imagination and a closed door covered with three petulant signs?

For me, it’s “Honey.”

Ellen Meister is the author of eight novels, including Take My Husband, a dark comedy forthcoming from Mira Books.